When I was a kid, we would occasionally have nights when my mom was extra tired or in a hurry or just wanted a simple meal, and we’d have apple slices and cheese for dinner. It tasted really good and was actually pretty healthy. But it wasn’t a complex flavor, just something you like. Pirate Radio is like eating apples and cheese for dinner.
The film tells the story of a rebel radio station off the coast of Britain in 1966, when the BBC only played 2 hours of rock and roll per day. The Pirate Radio boats would sit just outside British waters and broadcast music that would be listened to by many Britons (excepting the cartoonishly stuck-up parliamentarians, apparently). The film follows the adventures of the rag-tag broadcast crew aboard “Radio Rock.” One review I read criticized the film for its caricatures and shallow characters; I can see the validity of the claim, but ultimately it’s an ensemble movie that doesn’t seek to describe a specific character’s journey, but rather to capture the spirit of an era. In that regard, it succeeds for me.
Some other thoughts:
- The cast were just delightful. We saw a return of the old Richard Curtis standbys Emma Thompson (briefly), Bill Nighy, and Rhys Ifans (a personal favorite). We also have Phillip Seymour “Rue the Day” Hoffman, Nick Frost (Hot Fuzz), Rhys Darby (Flight of the Conchords‘ Murray), Catherine Parkinson and Chris O’Dowd (The IT Crowd), and Kenneth Branagh sporting a tiny mustache. The ensemble worked really well, with each person getting a few moments to shine but none overwhelming the story. It reminded me most of Curtis’ Love, Actually, which has a similar distributed feeling.
- I spent the whole movie pondering “Bob,” played by Ralph Brown. There was something about him that was familiar, but I’ll be damned if I could figure it out. Finally, having returned to IMDB, I discover that he played the legendary roadie Del Preston, in Wayne’s World 2. Check it out below.
- The film grabs on to an old canard about revolutionary radio — the idea of lots of people from different walks of life listening to the broadcast. Some other films that do this, off the top of my head: the old Shadow movies jumped from teens necking in cars to businessmen and cafe owners listening to news updates; Elf features a television broadcast at the end of the film that jumps from little girls’ bedrooms to biker bars and board rooms; Scrooged visits all its characters in the same way. Of course, we musn’t forget Pump Up the Volume. But the movie this most reminded me of was Private Parts. The jokes about the deejay wielding sexual powers over his listeners became especially prevalent once Gavin (Rhys Ifans) showed up and started (nearly) licking the microphone. Howard Stern’s movie also regularly bounced from listener to listener, highlighting the grocer with a radio over his stand or the business woman listening in her office. The clips for Pirate Radio could have been borrowed from Stern’s film, except for the period clothing.
- The least effective part of the film, for me, was the cartoonish villainy of Branagh’s character. It’s pretty ridiculous, especially the scene at his house during Christmas dinner.
- I thought the film’s sexual politics and relationships were the most serious part of the film. The main character’s easy forgiveness of his dream-girl’s betrayal gave me pause, but reflects the adolescent sex drive, perhaps. Chris O’Dowd brings the most powerful performance of the film in the happy/sad/cruel moment shortly after he marries his dream girl. Jenny and I decided that Curtis excels at crafting these tiny nuggets of intense emotion: c.f. Emma Thompson’s discovery of her husband’s wandering eye in Love, Actually.
- As a media scholar, I can’t help but ponder the role of the government and the place of broadcasters in the film. The movie makes much of the public’s love for the radio station and its rebel attitude. But the government also uses, as an excuse, the deaths of some sailors whose distress call was drowned out by the pirate radio stations. The henchman, named Twat, calls it the “smoking gun” they can use to shut down the stations and the film follows their evil machinations from there. But I had two thoughts: 1) the reasonable liberty-loving approach would have been to designate an emergency band in which no radio stations may broadcast; this solution isn’t available in this film because it’s a caricature, not the place for reasonable debate. 2) the film placed no emphasis or stress on those deaths. While the villains were cartoonish, they had a point–the behavior of the pirate radio stations was to blame for that distress call going awry and it’s a shame the film didn’t make space for that thought.
Overall, Pirate Radio offers an enjoyable meal that won’t make you ponder the splendor of the universe or the justice of the world. It won’t make you a better person. But you’ll probably be happy to have watched it. And it might get you to dust off those back-catalog mp3s or to check out a record from The Kinks.[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8wRSHXhJzsY]